Remembering Alistair MacLeod: ‘Great writer and a great man’

Prairie-born author was known for his short stories and his novel No Great Mischief

Alistair MacLeod, the Prairie-born author who won one of the world’s most lucrative literary prizes with his only novel, has died. He was 77.

MacLeod was known for his short stories and his novel “No Great Mischief,” winner of the 2001 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, then worth $172,000.

MacLeod’s former publisher, Doug Gibson, confirmed the death on Sunday.

“Alistair was that rare combination of a great writer and a great man,” said Gibson, who worked with MacLeod during his time at McClelland & Stewart.

“Whenever Alistair appeared in public, at readings or other literary events, people recognize that they were in the presence of a greatness that was very humble. And they realize that simply to be in his presence made their life a little better.”

Gibson said MacLeod had been in a Windsor, Ont., hospital ever since suffering a stroke in January.

“It was a hard stroke and he’s had a hard fight recovering from it,” he said.

Born in North Battleford, Sask., on July 20, 1936, MacLeod moved with his family to a farm on Cape Breton Island at the age of 10. It was there that the images and themes that informed his work took hold.

“When I sit down to write, the images and the details and the issues that come to my mind are those of Cape Breton,” he said in May 2009 in a conversation with fellow writer Nino Ricci at the University of Toronto.

“I think (for) some writers, associations with their material and maybe their place is something like maybe love.”

“No Great Mischief,” published in 1999, became an immediate critical success, winning the IMPAC as well as Ontario’s Trillium Prize.

Ten years later it was recognized as Atlantic Canada’s best book in the 2009 survey “Atlantic Canada’s 100 Greatest Books.”

The novel’s narrator, Alexander MacDonald, tells of a family’s life beginning in 18th-century Scotland and ending in 20th-century Nova Scotia.

In “Alistair MacLeod, Essays on his Works,” Irene Guilford notes that while intense in his devotion to locale, the author’s treatment of human questions was universal.

“This is writing that nudges one towards that most complex and wondrous state of being — an individual rooted in personal history and locale, connected to the past but also a citizen of the world, a person who would try to understand why Zulus dance,” she writes in her introduction.

“Where do we come from? Alistair MacLeod’s birthplace is Canadian, his emotional heartland is Cape Breton, his heritage Scottish, but his writing is of the world.”

MacLeod taught English and creative writing at the University of Windsor, where he also edited the University of Windsor Review. He and his wife, Anita, raised six children in Windsor.

But each summer, he returned to Cape Breton and the cliff-top cabin where he did much of his writing.

He was the subject of a National Film Board documentary in 2005, “Reading Alistair MacLeod,” and in 2008 was made an officer of the Order of Canada.

MacLeod received his PhD from the University of Notre Dame but did his undergraduate degree closer to home at St. Francis Xavier University and his MA at the University of New Brunswick.

He wrote his first short story, “The Boat,” in 1968.

MacLeod’s published works include the short story collections “The Lost Salt Gift of Blood” (1976), “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories” (1986), and “Island” (2000), which combined the first two collections with other stories.

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